For the fretting pet owner, a wireless distress signal
By ANNE EISENBERG
In the Walt Disney film "The Incredible Journey," two dogs and a cat are finally reunited with their owners after a long and dangerous cross-country trip.
For many pets, there is no such happy Hollywood ending. In the United States, only a small percentage of animals separated from their owners are reunited, according to the American Humane Association.
But wireless technology may one day provide some help both for animals and the humans who cherish them, whether the pets have strayed across town or across the border.
In one emerging technology, owners can keep track of their dogs by way of miniaturized Global Positioning System receivers and mobile modems attached to the dogs' collars.
"If the pet leaves the yard, you'll get a call on your cell phone, PDA or any other two-way wireless device," said Jennifer Durst, chief executive of GPS Tracks in Oyster Bay, N.Y., which has devised a GPS-based system called the Global Pet Finder.
Durst said the system would be on the market by the end of the year and would fit dogs of all sizes except toy breeds. The receiver will cost about $300 and there will be a monthly "monitoring fee" of about $13, she said.
"Cats will be next year," she said, "in version 2."
People who use the new system can set the boundaries for their dogs at a Web site or on the miniaturized device itself, specifying how far their pets can roam. It might be a back yard, Durst said, or, if both owner and pet are on vacation, a section of a beach, perhaps, or the area around a motel.
Software checks the pet's position constantly, she said. When it passes the default boundaries, an automatic alert is triggered and owners receive a text message. "It will say, 'Your pet has left' and send the exact location," Durst said. Locations will be identified by street name and number or, for certain cell phones, by maps.
"In rural areas with no street signs, you will be given directions from where you are," Durst said. The GPS receiver calculates the position, and the coordinates are translated into a readable position.
The system is designed for any area covered by a GSM cell phone network. Prominent in Europe and Asia, GSM networks are becoming more common in the United States, where they are used by T-Mobile and some other providers.
Another application of wireless technology may help reunite pets with their owners even when the animals are in another country.
Implanted microchip transponders have been used for years in the United States and elsewhere to identify dogs, cats and other pets. The tags include a glass-encased microchip with a unique identification number that cannot be altered but can be read by a low-frequency radio scanner. The number is then matched to a database to find the pet's owner.
The problem has been that the American and overseas systems are incompatible. So some organizations in the United States that maintain identification databases are switching to the international system in the hope of one day linking American pets and owners to a global database.
The use of microchips has increased steadily, said Sue Richey, who directs the American Kennel Club's Companion Animal Recovery program. The program keeps a national database in Raleigh, N.C., in which people can enroll their microchipped or tattooed pets. "We're getting 55,000 to 70,000 animals a month," she said, "with a live recovery every eight minutes 24/7."
Right now, most pet microchips and scanners used in the United States operate on a radio frequency of 125 kilohertz. But the chips used in much of the rest of the world operate at an international standard of 134.2 kilohertz, Richey said.
That disparity can lead to problems when, for example, an American loses a pet while traveling in a foreign country. "Their scanners can't read our chips," said John Snyder, director of companion animals for the Humane Society of the United States, in Washington.
Several groups have already begun using the 134.2 kilohertz chip, including the Oregon Humane Society in Portland, which started implanting them in January, said Sharon Harmon, executive director of the society.
But many shelters do not have scanners that can read the new chips. "It's not a good thing if we don't have the scanners in place," Snyder said, "because animals are being missed."
Scanners that can read both kinds of chips will be needed, said Jodi Buckman, director of animal programs for the American Humane Association in Denver. "It's a mistake to have a technology used only in the U.S.," she said. "One worldwide standard will provide the ultimate protection for pets."
Pet chips of the future may be different in other ways, too. For one thing, they may be updatable. At this point information on the microchips cannot be changed, meaning that new developments in a medical history, for example, can't be added.
But Dr. Walt Ingwersen, a veterinarian in Whitby, Ontario, who has served as chairman of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association's microchip committee, said that smarter, read-write chips are on the way. Ingwersen is now a member of a technical committee that is developing international standards for the advanced transponders. "The animal's ID number will remain the same on the chip," he said, "but the contents will be updatable."
Sue Sternberg, a shelter owner and dog trainer in Accord, N.Y., said she welcomed GPS -based tracking devices and implanted microchips.
"We get a dog sometimes and we know it is a beloved pet that has traveled a long distance," she said. "In that case, a microchip would be a great thing."
Norma Bennett Woolf, editor of Dog Owner's Guide, an online magazine, agreed. "Too many owners are heartbroken at the loss of their pets," she said. "Technology has a lot of potential here to get dogs home to their families."
Naples Daily News, FL
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This is good to know. Den-Den is microchipped. If I ever travel out of the country with him, I'll make sure to have him microchipped again with the appropriate chip where we'll be traveling. It's such a simple procedure and painless.
I would like to see a GPS transmitter small enough to be implanted also. So if missing, I could get a location with a receiver. If stolen, I'm afraid the thieves would remove a device attached to a collar.